Go Sell It On The Mountain

Will the down economy help Crested Butte's owners end a 30-some year controversy and expand the ski resort?

  • The town of Crested Butte, where residents scorn glitz and glam, even while a miner's shack can sell for $1 million.

    Dusty Demerson photo courtesy Crested Butte Mountain Resort
  • Copyright 2009 Google Imagery, GeoEye, Map data copyright 2009 Tele Atlas. SHAUN C. GIBSON MAP, Source: Crested Butte Mountain Resort

Thirty-four years ago, Glo Cunningham swapped her Vietnam War protest signs for a pair of skis at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. At the time, the ski hill was just a handful of glades carved into the steep face of Mount Crested Butte at the end of an isolated valley in western Colorado. Just down the road was the busted mining town of Crested Butte, population 500. The skiers arrived along with the hippies, and Cunningham found camaraderie in both groups. Unlike nearby Aspen, Crested Butte was still hardscrabble, its ski runs catering to the hardcore, void of the glamour that was beginning to shimmer across Colorado's ski country. Cunningham, a bell-bottom-wearing 26-year-old with long thick braids, was a typical Crested Butte contrarian -- instead of pursuing a career or a husband, like others of her generation, she worked odd jobs when she needed cash and spent the majority of her time immersed in the mountains.

Soon after her arrival, though, Howard Callaway, majority owner of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, announced plans to expand his empire onto 2,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on Snodgrass Mountain. He saw money in the mellower slopes and stunning views that could lure skiers of all sorts to the remote valley.

That awoke Cunningham's rabble-rousing civil disobedience from its altitude-induced slumber. She and a group of buddies formed a group to fight the expansion. Wildflowers blanket Snodgrass in the late summer, and streams roll off the mountain's flanks in the spring. And in the winter -- then and now -- the snow-covered slopes draw scores of snowshoers and backcountry skiers. The anti-expansion contingent argued that developing the place would break up this intact ecosystem and its elk migration corridor and also restrict the public from public land. They insisted that an undeveloped Snodgrass had more long-term value than a new ski area would. Besides, they were unimpressed with operations at the existing resort and believed that Callaway and his co-owners needed to take better care of what they already had.

We weren't a top-notch ski resort at the time," says Cunningham, now 60 and still a Crested Butte resident. "From day one, the people felt we needed to have a quality experience at the mountain that was already here, already built."

Cunningham and company crowded Forest Service meetings on the expansion proposal and passed hours in folding chairs offering public comment. Cunningham even attempted to sway Callaway personally.

But he wasn't interested. His $45 million expansion proposal would draw scores more tourists to the valley, he said, and he wasn't going to abandon the effort because of some hippie opposition. Do you want to remain an insignificant, unknown outpost? Callaway asked. Or become a world-class ski destination?

Ultimately, the decision came down to the Forest Service, which rejected Callaway's plan. The ski resort retooled its proposal and tried again. And again. In 1982, the Forest Service finally granted permission to expand. But the resort's owners at the time failed to act, and the permit expired, taking Snodgrass temporarily off the block. That did little to ease the anxiety of Cunningham and her crew, however.

"It never was solved," says Cunningham. "And I always knew that new owners for the resort increased potential that a Snodgrass expansion would rear its head again."

And so it has. In 2004, Tim and Diane Mueller bought the resort, and again started working on the expansion. After four years of navigating the bureaucracy, the resort will formally propose a Snodgrass expansion plan to the Forest Service this spring. If it succeeds, new lifts could be running by the winter of 2011.

And while the Friends of Snodgrass, a group formed specifically to fight expansion, still think it's a bad idea, today the resort may succeed, thanks in part to an unlikely ally: the depressed economy. While the staunchest opponents will never support expansion onto Snodgrass, others in the anti-expansion crowd are feeling a strong financial pinch as their jobs are cut back or vanish altogether. If the resort can sell the expansion's immediate economic benefits -- the jobs created by cutting runs and building lifts, and construction at the mountain's base -- and also convince the community that it will deliver more long-term economic stability, well, the resort may finally have found its window of opportunity.

Expansion onto Snodgrass is critical to the ski area's financial success, and Crested Butte's winter economy depends on a successful ski area, says Ken Stone, the ski resort's chief operating officer. Stone stops short of capitalizing directly on the recession. But his suggestion that a Snodgrass expansion could serve as a stimulus for the local economy rings true for many in the area.

With the recession keeping tourists at home and discouraging boomers from buying second homes, sales tax revenue is falling, and there are fewer jobs for year-round locals, says Joe Fitzpatrick, manager of Mount Crested Butte, the incorporated town at the ski area's base. Developing Snodgrass will also spur a building boom on resort-owned vacant land at the mountain's base.

"We're trying to be realists," Fitzpatrick said. "We don't expect much construction now because of the economy. We sell second homes when Americans have discretionary dollars. But if Snodgrass is approved, we'll see an influx of development dollars."

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